"PIGS"

(The Pig Culture at 201 McCord)

by

Max Poteete

(January 8, 1998)



Every year in the spring, Dad would get two baby pigs of the Berkshire breed. Since they had been weaned, they were called shoats (remember that if you are ever in a Trivial Pursuit game). Dad preferred barrows to gilts. Barrows are castrated male pigs and these were Dad's preferences over the gilts, another term for young female pigs. Dad felt they just did better; no one fattened boars for butchering.



Immediately on their arrival at 201 McCord, these two critters entered the food-chain, by recycling table scraps; the word recycling wasn't trendy back then, although it was in the dictionary. You have likely heard the phrase happy as a pig in slop. I think our pigs might have been a few notches higher on the happiness scale than the "run-of-the-slop" ordinary garden variety porkers. Early on, their table scraps were supplemented; often with real skim-milk. It must have been stronger than the 2% that we are familiar with today; you couldn't see through it anyhow. Also Dad liked to enhance their rations occasionally with a little helping of bran or corn. I doubt that concern for their emotional state was considered at all; except as everybody knows, happy pigs are healthy pigs, and they were that for sure.

Of course they were growing rapidly. When they arrived they were maybe ten or twelve inches high and twenty inches long; more or less. By late August, they had almost doubled in size and were ready to move on to a more pampered phase of their brief life. Their quarters were improved and their diet upgraded, the skim-milk and table scraps still held, but more grain and bran were added. Where they previously had free run of the barnyard, the new quarters confined them to an approximately eight-foot-square wood floored pen. A generous sized feed trough and a water trough took two sides of one corner so their running-around space was considerably diminished. As far as I could tell though, their happiness level didn't decline with the change; the diet upgrade might have even raised it a notch or two.

By the time this phase had been well established-around the first of October, Mother's fall garden was beginning to flourish. Beets, turnips, mustard-greens, spinach, and other stuff I can't remember, except one leafy greens plant called RAPE, ( I'm told it is grown extensively in the northern planes of the mid-continent for the oil extracted from it's seed). These rape greens were kinda favored at our table, so there was a good-sized area reserved for this particular veggie, and besides the pigs liked them; especially after Dad started baking them a bran bread, with the rape cooked in ( he had acquired a small wood stove with an oven, and did his cooking outside). This product, steaming from his oven, looked and smelled as tempting as any oven-baked bread ever did, and even if it was pig feed I think all of us kids pinched off a sample more than once. Needless to say, I do believe the pigs notched their happiness level up another peg or two with this additional refinement to their fare.

By now November was nigh with shorter cooler days and of course cooler nights; the season for serious pig fattening had arrived. The eight foot square (more or less) pen, became an all-they-could-eat pig diner. That generous-sized feed trough came into itís own, with the water trough right there, it wasn't many days until they just sort of hunkered down on their sterns pivoting from feed trough to water trough and back. They used the diagonal corner for their sanitary space. It was shoveled out and hosed out daily. The visit to that corner and back to the troughs was the limit of their perambulations. Sometimes, I suppose they had reached satiation; they just lay down en route and napped for a while. Now they came to their true calling, they became HOGS. Their day of destiny was just under the horizon; "D" Day!!

I think for me Hog Killing Day was the most memorable of all the recurring events of the year at 201 McCord. Year in and year out, it was always fascinating to watch and be part of it. It was important that the weather be cool enough for the flies to be gone. (Flies could spoil fresh meat quickly). As I remember, any time after the first of December was thought to be safe. Dad didn't think he had the competency to do the actual butchering, but there was always a volunteer who claimed to have the necessary skill. He procured an Italian butcher who did all the butchering in exchange for the internal organs which our family didn't want to eat. (I really think Dad had gotten so attached to his pigs, that he just couldn't give coup de main..) The day started early, a lot of hot water was vitally important, so the first item on the agenda was to get the fire going under the almost full 55 gal, oil drum. It had been thoroughly cleaned of any residuals of course beforehand and it took an hour or better to get the water up to the right temp. While waiting, the theater for the event was prepared; a shallow hole, maybe twelve inches deep was dug with one side sloped up. This little pit accommodated another 55 gal. drum that was placed on it's side at what ever angle the slope was, something less than 45 degrees. Right in front of the open end of this barrel a very low sort of table-platform was put in place. Adjacent to this area there had to be some sort of a gantry, stout and stable enough to hoist and hold a two-hundred-fifty pound plus or minus carcass. A two-block fence stretcher served very well. Scrapers, knives, buckets, whet-rocks; all the accouterments necessary for a successful operation; it was a sort of surgical procedure after all, were accounted for and checked, clean, sharp, and in good operating condition. The moment arrived. A 22 caliber. shot between the eyes dispatched the animal quickly and humanely. This was the part that Dad couldn't handle, he was always otherwise engaged at this particular instant, but he reappeared quickly and the fascinating (to me at least) event was underway. It was hard work, with no breaks until late afternoon, when the job was finished.

The pig-sticking was critically important, blood had to be thoroughly and quickly drained from the carcass. The butcher's skill at locating and severing the main artery from the head to the heart verified first thing his claim to competency. Done correctly, the carcass drained in seconds. The phrase bleeding like a stuck hog always seemed too graphic for me after my first witnessing of a pig killing.

In the meantime the heated water had reached just about the right temperature (just short of boiling), the tilted barrel filled to a level so that about half the carcass would be covered when it was plunged into the water. Now strong backs and hands thrust this object that was rapidly being transformed from pig to pork into the very hot water, one end at a time of course, and if you got a good scald, the bristles slipped off easily with diligent application of the scraper, but clearing the head and ears of bristles and hair was a tedious chore to say the least, but the processing of this particular item, was an even more daunting task. (More about that later.)

After the bristles were thoroughly removed ,the tendons to the back feet were accessed and the gantline stick, only in our case a single tree was hooked around the tendons, this implement spread-eagled the carcass and with the block-and-tackle attached to it, was easily hoisted to vertical under the gin-pole or gantry.

Now the butcher, down-stage-center, with his scalpel-sharp knife started, with the concentration and precision of a surgeon, and began to open the body cavity. Us kids looked on with near hypnotic stares as the mysteries of a pig's viscera began to be revealed. A tub was right there to receive all this material. There was a lot of leaf fat attached to the various parts, and it was carefully trimmed away and saved to be rendered with the rest of the fat that would accumulate by the time the job of butchering was done. The heart, liver, and kidneys, were separated from this mass and set aside, the lungs and stomach were relegated to the offal tub with the rest of the stuff. Some people saved the small intestine to use for sausage casing, and I've been told chitlins and collard greens are high on the list of favorite soul food in some circles; not so in ours. With this phase done, the head was removed and set aside for later processing, and the carcass was split in half with a butcher's saw down the center of the backbone.

Before the sides were quartered, (hams and shoulders detached) a lot of fat was trimmed off; there was a lot of it too. With the shoulders and hams off, the backbone was separated from the ribs, again with a butcherís saw. Now there were two huge slabs of side meat, (processed later into salt pork). The tenderloin was separated from the remains of the backbone and the backbone cut up into small chunks and some of these were fixed for supper. Ah yes I remember so well those tasty bits of meat-seasoned and cooked so artfully, floating around in pure grease in the serving bowl; tell it not in Gath!! This was indeed a favorite feast. You must remember, this was years, yes-even generations before the Diet Police came into ascendency.


"Pigs: Part 2"
(The Pig Culture at 201 McCord)
by Max Poteete
(August 1, 1998)


Now that the carcass had been dismantled, it metamorphosed into hams, shoulders, and ribs and another critically important phase started. Those parts were to be cured (preserved for long term consuming). Hams, shoulders, side-meat (salt pork) had to be salted down right away. Freshly butchered meat will spoil quickly if it isnÕt refrigerated or as in our circumstances, salted.

Salt Pork

Dad had built a table for this particular purpose. It was about five feet long and maybe thirty inches wide, had a tongue-and-grove pine top to forestall seeping (plywood was not available then). The procedure was a layer of salt first, maybe a half inch thick, then the slab of side-meat covered completely with salt, then the other slab, again liberally covered with salt, then the two shoulders and the two hams, none of the pieces touching, all separated by a layer of salt.

The salt seemed to be drawn into the meat rather quickly, and in the process a lot of water was driven out, that was the reason for the seep-tight surface of the table top. As the salt was absorbed, more was added as needed. There were no spots that were not covered; this kept any aggressive flies or any predatory germs or bugs at bay. After some twelve hours or so the absorbing pretty much stopped, then whatever liquid that had been drawn out slowly evaporated. It was necessary to turn the parts occasionally to make sure none of it was laying in this accumulated liquid. After an extended period, maybe two or three weeks, the curing was completed and ready for storage.

Dad had built a big box, about two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half feet and possibly thirty inches deep with a hinged lid Ñthe box was constructed for this specific purpose. The process started with a layer of shelled corn, two or three inches deep, then the meat (one layer), then another layer of corn and so on. The shelled corn was totally dry and the kernels provided enough air-space to keep the temperature constant in the mid-sixty range. It all lasted with no spoiling or bugs or any other noxious elements until it was used up, well into the summer.

My memory gets somewhat hazy on many of the details but I have clear and vivid recollections of heaping bowls and platters of steaming-, freshly-picked string beans, corn (on and off the cob) and sliced tomatoes and onions, all in an abundance we didnÕt even think about. Anyhow, a most important ingredient in the preparation of these mouthwatering summer staples was .... yeah! ... salt pork. Check the details with the girlsÑGranny taught them well. These crops lasted almost all summer and they were always seasoned with salt pork from the last winter's butchering. Oh yes, the shelled corn was always recycled as chicken feed. The chickens seemed to like the latent salt flavor.

Lard

As the salting-down phase was started, another very significant production got underway: processing the fat for lard, making sausage, converting the heart and liver into edible and enduring by-products, and donÕt forget the HEAD!

Almost all of the components of this recently butchered porker had considerable fat attached (after all the critter was being "fattened" for the past several months). The excess was trimmed and set aside for rendering. I donÕt remember the quantities by volume or weight, but I do remember what seemed to me dozens of two-quart Mason jars filled with that vital ingredientÑlard. Again, as the Girls.

The operation started with a large kettle filled with this accumulation of trimmings, heated over a slow fire so that it wouldn't scorch or burn, and allowed to simmer for a long time. After it had cooked long enough to be "done", the kettle was removed from the fire and the contents strained through a specially prepared cotton flour sack, into another large kettle. From this container the liquid (lard) was poured into the afore mentioned jars and the jars were capped; this very hot liquid created a partial vacuum when it cooled, making a secure seal.

Sausage

The sausage making was even more of a job. In the trimming of the various parts, there was quite a lot of lean scraps accumulated and they were saved for sausage. Barbecued ribs were not on the agenda back then so there was lean meat trimmed from them and because sausage was such a favorite much of the loin was chosen also. As I remember there was a big round dishpan, twenty inches or more in diameter that was heaped high by the time the trimming for sausage was finished. Aunt Laurie had a big hand-cranked meat grinder that was borrowed and these scraps took on the identify of "real pork sausage" as they were extruded through the grinder.

It looked like sausage then, but it wasn't quite there yet.....a very important step, seasoning, was next. It seemed like there were always a few people around that had their own special formula that they wanted to pass on. Granny had her own recipe thoughÑthere was a kind of art to itÑjust the right amount of salt, sage, pepper (ground black), with just a smidgen of red, and I donÕt know what else. Anyhow, her sausage was absolutely peerless! This magic mix (seasoning) was blended by hand into the meat until it was evenly dispersed. Many of us remember her nimble fingers mixing her biscuit doughÑshe use the same technique with the sausage.

Now came the time to prepare the stuff for canning; remember the Mason jars? First, this big pile of ground meat was changed to a big pile of rolled balls; not as big as a golf ball, maybe a little more than an inch in diameter. These were cooked in a fair-sized cast iron frying pan. When there were "done", they were put into the half-gallon jars, much the same way the lard had been done.

Livermush

After the sausage, there was still the liver and the heart to be dealt with. Mother called it making livermush. My memory of the making of this particular product is very vague, might be because I never cared for it. We still had it in our lunch sacks that we took to school though.

These parts, heart and liver, were ground up and reduced to a single mass, then a pretty liberal amount of cornmeal was added. This is where the livermush label came from I supposeÑthen a generous allowance of salt and pepper and enough water was added to about the consistency of heavy pancake batter and this was poured into a large casserole-type pan and baked in the oven until it was firm. When it was properly stored, it kept very well, at least until we ate it all. It seemed like it lasted a long time to me.

Head Cheese

Now we get to the head. First off, it had to have every hair removed. At first glance, this doesnÕt appear to be such a daunting task, but next time you go to the fair, when you pass by the 4-H pigs, take a close look at the critters ears!! Pigs even have eyelashes! And then study all the clefts and crevasses that contribute to the make up of the creatures physiognomy -- quite hirsute.

Now the head is clean enough to pass inspection. The eyes have been removed and disposed of - - oh yes, I forgot the tongue -- I believe it had been relegated to the livermush mass. Perhaps some of the Girls remember.

An adjunct to this "head cheese" that is in process now, are the feet ("trotters"). In our dietary culture they were not pickled. Of course they had all the hair removed too, as well as the horny part -- I suppose we would call it the hoof.

Now the head and feet and many miscellaneous bones that might have some meat fragments still attached were assembled into one huge pot, enough water added to cover it all, seasoned with salt and brought to a slow boil. Stirred almost continuously of course.

After this whole kettle full of stuff began to simmer along, the meat began to separate from the bones; the head still pretty much intact was a much bigger chunk and took a lot more time to cook. When this "stew" had cooked long enough for the flesh to be separated from the bone easily, it was removed from the fire and after cooling enough to work with and then began the tedium of picking the bones and skull clean. Now the snout and the ears are very different from the rest of the pigÕs connective tissueÑcartilaginous I guess you would say -- they survived this prolonged stewing pretty much intact. They were set aside for the moment - - they would be back at the proper time.

There is now a rather generous sized heap of cooked meat to be dealt with, most of it in small bits. It all went through the meat grinder and the ears and snout, went along too. So the whole bit had a consistent texture. Now came the seasoning, a simpler formula than that used for the sausage - - mostly pepper as I remember. All of this was blended and kneaded by hand similar to the way the sausage was treated.

In this cooking process, to separate the bone from the meat, the water that was added had been reduced to a pretty rich meat stock and now it was all added together, put into a baking pan and into the over to cook slowly until it was firm.

In our culture and experience this product was labeled "head cheese." The Amish called theirs "scrapple." Whatever, it kept well; seems like we had it in our school lunch sandwiches for an awful long time. I never did adjust to chewing on those bits of gristle that I still recognized as snout and ear. They never lost their identity to me.

Cleaning Up

All that was left to do now was cleaning upÑWhat a chore!! IÕm not exaggerating! The air in the kitchen was saturated with grease vapor. It left a film that covered everything. Granny, in her diligence and near fanaticism for keeping things clean and sanitary, wouldnÕt let anyone off until it was all clean and spotless. "It just wasnÕt over til it was over" to quote Yogi Berra.

The house has a pretty good-sized basement. Dad had built a lot of shelves down there, and I remember the snug secure feeling when we saw those shelves all loaded with those Mason jars filled with all manner of the past yearÕs bounty. Peaches, apricots, tomatoes, string beans, pears, plums, black berries and not forgetting all the varieties of jam and jelly, and then all the great preserved pork products.

I think that any of those Girls could spin a great story about those hot summer days when they were out there under the fig tree, peeling, pitting, and preparing the fruit, then into the steaming kitchen to get the stuff into the fruit jars, and all the neighbor kids were parading up the street in their bathing suits to go swimming in one the irrigation canals.